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What We Did During the War/Instant Issues 

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What We Did During the War

James Bond Stockdale didn't have much to say during the vice-presidential debate, but he responded frankly to some pointed questions a few hours later on Good Morning America. No, said Stockdale, seven years a POW in Hanoi, he didn't think either Al Gore or Dan Quayle had the character to endure the same hardships. And yes, draft evaders like Quayle and Bill Clinton troubled him--a citizen can't pick and choose which of his country's wars he'll fight in.

But why can't he? We're sorry Ross Perot's running mate didn't get to make the same points in debate; if he had, a subject George Bush has nibbled at around its cheesy edges might have (though it probably wouldn't have) come in for serious discussion. After Stockdale defined duty, he could have been reminded that the legal basis of the Vietnam war was the Tonkin Gulf Resolution, and in 1964 he knew better than any other American that the resolution was bogus. Stockdale was flying overhead the night North Vietnamese boats supposedly attacked an American destroyer in the Gulf of Tonkin; he recognized that the destroyer had been misled by its radar. Three years, five years, seven years later, did young men still have no right to spurn the unending war as illegitimate?

Bill Clinton sidestepped the draft. But even George Bush's sons, devoted civilians all, could see that coming to the aid of Winston Churchill had been one thing and dying for Nguyen Van Thieu was another. Hoping to put Slick Willie in context, we called some other people who stayed out of the war:

Stuart Gordon, movie director: "What people have forgotten is that there were a lot of people who worked very hard to stop the war. I consider myself one of those people. Carol [his wife] and I were both teargassed at [the '68 convention]. We were arrested in the city because we had long hair and were driving a Beetle. I realized after ten minutes the guy in the cell with me was a cop.

"I didn't want to see anybody get drafted. In those days they sent us [University of Wisconsin students] to Milwaukee because they felt the Madison board was too liberal. So we had to get on a bus to go there for a physical. On the way there it was like a scene out of Marat/Sade. Everybody on the bus was catatonic or talking to themselves. They were all working on their insane acts. And when we got there it was absolute chaos. No one would follow the lines or follow any of the orders or any of that stuff.

"There was a lot of support for each other. When one person went off and started singing, everyone would. And the whole thing became so completely chaotic--I remember people were taking pages out of Tuli Kupferberg's book 1001 Ways to Beat the Draft. Like spreading peanut butter on the cheeks of their ass--and the doctor would comment on it, and you'd reach back and grab a handful and eat it. It was like Marat/Sade--can you top this? People screaming at the draft-board doctors. Knocking tables over. I remember thinking, I wasn't leaving until I was deferred.

"On the way back everyone was like cheering and jubilant and singing songs. Except for a couple of ROTC guys who'd gotten drafted."

Journalist who asked not to be identified: "When I got called to the draft it was 1962. There was no real war then, but I clearly didn't want to go into the Army. I guess as a true child of the 60s I was into finding myself and becoming a human being. The notion of being reduced to a . . . something . . . that was just trained to respond without thinking seemed like anathema to me. It seemed totally contrary to everything I was trying to do to become a human being. And I never believed that force was the way to resolve a conflict.

"But I went to take my physical, and they had a question on the form that we filled out asking if you ever get nervous or depressed. I filled in the box 'yes.' And they pulled me out of line and said, 'You have to go speak to a psychiatrist.' I walked into the psychiatrist's office, and he said, 'Take a chair.' I picked up the chair and walked out. Three burly sergeants tackled me in the hall, dragged me back, and sat me down. And he said, 'You say here you get nervous and depressed. What do you get nervous and depressed about?' I said, 'That's easy.' I said, 'Basically I get nervous and depressed about the thought I might have to go in the Army.' And he said, 'I don't think we want you.' And they gave me a 1-Y, which I think meant emotionally or psychologically unfit to serve. This would not have worked four years later.

"It isn't that I didn't want to serve my country. It's just that I didn't want to go in the Army and go to war. I sometimes wonder if I lost a chance to prove my manhood and courage. Although I say I don't believe in force being a way to resolve conflicts, I've always admired Superman and the Lone Ranger and Batman and Joe Palooka."

Peter Miner, New York City schoolteacher and brother: "I was opposed to having anything to do with that war as much as anything on the basis of my Peace Corps experience, living in a third-world country that I thought was not unlike Vietnam in that the U.S. did not know anything about Nigeria nor did they care. It was just another strange part of the world where there were a lot of non-English-speaking, non-Christian, subhuman people living somewhere outside of the American experience. I felt we had no business being in Vietnam, and I wanted nothing to do with killing these people.

"I applied for conscientious-objector status. I wrote out a lengthy form, fairly confident that I wasn't going to be granted it because there was a fairly narrow reading of what a CO was at that time. You had to belong to some organized church. I belonged to no church at all, and I think I suggested I didn't necessarily believe in God. The draft board naturally refused my status, and I thought not uncoincidentally served me with my draft papers fairly soon after. For a while I was saying, I'll go to prison. And then I thought, No, I'm letting them beat me up. So I thought, I'll let myself be inducted and serve my two years. I stopped thinking about it. The night before I was going to go through all the processing and be inducted they had us staying at a hotel in Kansas City [he was in graduate school at the University of Kansas]. I realized I was surrounded in the hotel by a bunch of young kids who didn't have the experience or savvy to realize they had options. It was, America, whatever you say I'm going to do. And I thought, No, no, no, I'm smarter than that. I spent the whole night by myself. I read and I thought and I realized, I'm going to refuse induction tomorrow.

"I had been informed that you were not technically a member of the service until the induction ceremony when you took a step forward. I didn't step forward. The only troubling part was all these young kids--as they all filed past me, they all looked so young and kind of confused. For the one of me who said no, 60 other kids didn't say no. And I'm sure some of them are dead today.

"I was asked to go upstairs. The FBI came and questioned me, and I was released on my own recognizance. I called my lawyer. The FBI called the prosecuting attorney in Kansas City. Before my lawyer and I met with him he read my application for CO status, which introduced him to me and I think convinced him I wasn't some crazy kid. And he also considered the fact I'd served in the Peace Corps for two years. He told my lawyer, essentially, 'I'm not interested in prosecuting this guy. Do whatever you can to go through other channels.' My lawyer put me in touch with a psychiatrist who was very sympathetic with people trying to dodge the draft. I resisted that. Something inside me said this is not an honorable way of dealing with this. My lawyer said, 'You're nuts. You don't know anything about prison. If we do go to trial, you're probably going to lose.' I guess five or six weeks later I exploded, threw a couple of dishes and realized 'I'm not coping with this very well.' I took a bus into Kansas City the next day and for the next six months visited with this fellow two days a week. I got a draft notice again, and he wrote a letter saying 'He's a paranoid schizophrenic with suicidal tendencies.'"

Scott Jacobs, video maker: "I knew people who painted their penises blue and went to the Cambridge induction center wearing Indian headdresses. I knew someone who later became a prominent White House speech writer who went on a water diet and lost 40 pounds so he'd be too thin. Everyone was looking for a way to avoid going to Vietnam and killing people you had no argument with.

"The saving grace for me was the institution of the lottery. Everybody in Cambridge was sitting in front of a TV that night, and there was an eerie quiet on the streets as they drew numbers. You'd be watching TV and hear the number four pulled out--number 4, March 24--and you'd hear this scream from outside. And later on you'd be walking around and see people punch-drunk on the street--people saying I'm number 14 or number 28. I was 268. The number is etched in my memory.

"There's probably a whole segment of the population that wonders, Where was Bill Clinton? And that's the people who were out protesting the Vietnam war. They can rightly ask, What was Bill Clinton doing to stop it? But I'm not in any way on Bill Clinton's case. It was a confusing time. It was OK to be confused. I probably believe that more than the rest of it."

Instant Issues

The second presidential debate was hailed on front pages almost everywhere as a victory for substance. "Issues win over innuendo," said the Tribune. "Issues, not attacks, dominate as audience guides 2d debate," proclaimed the New York Times. "Debate Digs Into Issues," announced USA Today. The Sun-Times played the courtly event on page 18.

Americans whose idea of a sober airing of vital matters is an exchange of 120-second set pieces got exactly what they wanted. We flicked off the TV still wondering if the candidates could talk sense on any one subject for as long as five minutes straight. We tried to imagine Bush or Clinton (at gunpoint) attempting a half-hour speech entirely on the economy--or on abortion, or foreign affairs, or the duties of citizenship. But would television even show it? Only if, as Ross Perot did, Bush or Clinton paid for the time himself.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Bruce Powell, Townes, UPI/Bettmann Newsphotos.

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